Sex Work in the UK: The Stigma and Struggle in the Pandemic
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
The western social consciousness has long intertwined sexuality and morality. Despite often being referred to as the ‘oldest profession’, many cultural and religious discourses continue to deem sex work as immoral.
In 2017, a government study estimated that there were around 72,800 sex workers in the UK with cis-gendered women making up 94% of that number. The same study found that 11% of British men between the ages of 16-24 had paid for sex at least once (that’s 2.3 million people).
This guide takes a look at the stigma which female sex workers face in life and law, and what a public health crisis means for those who work in the industry.
Defining sex work
For the purpose of this guide, the term sex work refers specifically to the exchange of sexual services between consenting adults for financial gain.
Most people who exist outside the industry are guilty of associating sex work with exploitation and human trafficking. The buying and selling of sex do have undeniable links to violence, gangs and drugs. But when we think about sex work only in terms of exploitation, we take away an agency that is not often afforded to sex workers.
"when we think about sex work only in terms of exploitation, we take away an agency that is not often afforded to sex workers"
The ‘whore’ stigma
Western philosophical conceptions of freedom are closely tied to sexual liberation. Despite this, society looks down on women who choose to commodify sex. The stigma surrounding sex work creates an inaccurate picture of all sex workers as uneducated, poor and defenceless (check out this article for more on this).
Sex work deviates from societal, sexual and moral norms. Commercialising sex stands outside prescribed sexual behaviour and so sex workers’ identities become based on difference. This means when we speak about sex work in the media or even with our friends, our conversation can often focus on how sex workers are different from us.
In 2018, the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness posted an article about the effects of this stigma on sex workers who have to ‘come up with strategies to hide their involvement in sex work, as not to experience public shaming by authorities, being banned from home communities or by friends and family, and experiencing abuse of power’.
Abuse at the hands of the police is a real fear for sex workers. In April 2016, PC Luke Smith from Sussex Police was jailed for 15 months after pleading guilty to obtaining the records of workers from police databases and then harassing them.
Violence against sex workers is normalised and you do not have to dig deep to find it. A quick search of GTA on YouTube brings up videos with titles like GTA 5 First Person - PICKING UP A PROSTITUTE! GTA V Hooker Pick Up. In this video, the streamer has a sex worker perform sexual acts on his gaming avatar. After this interaction, the streamer asks his fans to like and subscribe before saying ‘we can’t let her get away with our money’ as he then proceeds to back up his avatar’s car and run the sex worker over. This video has garnered over 2.6 million views and others like it have hundreds of thousands.
"An estimated 152 sex workers were murdered in the UK between 1990 and 2015"
This 2017 government study estimates that 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. Almost half of sex workers in the UK are worried about their safety not only from violent clients, but also the police. The bottom line is – the police is not a source of safety for sex workers. Therefore, violence at the hands of clients will, more often than not, go unreported.
UK laws surrounding sex work
While the Netherlands has legalised it, most countries pass laws in an effort to prevent sex work. Sex work is illegal in countries like South-Africa, Russia, China and most of the USA. UK law also treats sex work as a social issue but its approach to regulation is different. In the UK, it is technically legal to sell sex, but almost everything surrounding sex work is illegal. This is known as ‘partial decriminalisation’.
So, in the UK you can legally have sex in exchange for money or other forms of remission, but most forms of communication with a client is illegal. It is illegal for sex workers to work together. Kerb crawling or soliciting (picking up a client on the street) is also illegal.
To protect themselves from penalisation, sex workers need to work alone and occupy less busy places. But to protect themselves from attack, it's safer for sex workers to work together in well-lit areas. It’s a catch-22: sex workers are vulnerable working alone and vulnerable working together.
"it's a catch-22: sex workers are vulnerable working alone and vulnerable working together"
UK legislation focuses on reducing sex work rather than keeping sex workers safe. In her TedTalk, Juno Mac (a British sex worker) says UK laws surrounding sex work give police and clients the knowledge that they can abuse sex workers and get away with it.
Sex work tends to bring about conversations of either victimisation (insert horror story of a young woman with nowhere else to turn) or of empowerment (insert story of a strong woman reclaiming her body). While both these experiences can be true, these polarised conversations distract us from the real crux of the matter – no one listens to sex workers themselves.
Although not one experience of sex work is universal, Mac says that she speaks for all sex workers when she says that all sex workers want full decriminalisation and labour rights.
Sex work in the pandemic
The pandemic has hit hardest the sectors in which women are over-represented (check out our articles on how Covid-19 has impacted women here). Unsurprisingly, the sex work industry is no different.
A survey shared by The Independent found that out of 222 sex workers almost two-thirds are struggling to feed themselves and their families and are in great need of emergency food vouchers. But 1 in 10 of these sex workers are finding it difficult to access government benefits. As a result, many sex workers are facing homelessness.
"Almost two thirds of sex workers are struggling to feed themselves and their families during the pandemic"
A spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (an organisation that advocates for the rights of sex workers), Niki Adams told The Independent: ‘This is a government saying they are interested in finding routes out of prostitution but their own cruel austerity measures are pushing us into prostitution and trapping us in it. The government hasn’t provided any tailored support’.
The Guardian sadly reported that three women known to one London charity have died from suicide or a drug overdose in the past six months. Two other sex workers made serious attempts on their lives but were interrupted by staff.
Despite this, more and more women are turning to sex work as we see mass unemployment take hold of the UK. The English Collective of Prostitutes says that there has been a significant rise in women returning to the industry and in women seeking out sex work for the first time.
The pandemic has exposed the injustice of many social systems. The past year has been a tumultuous time for everyone, but sex workers have been left without support from the UK Government. Earning money is no easy feat when meeting with clients is near impossible. Not to mention that lockdown restrictions have also brought sex workers under more police scrutiny.
This is an opportunity for the government to take action and listen to the wants and needs of sex workers themselves. After all, is it really such a radical idea that laws be made in collaboration with the people they are meant to serve?
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka